You’ll never hear people ask for directions to Carnegie Hall. Why? Because everyone knows how you get to Carnegie Hall. You practice, practice, practice.
But practice doesn’t automatically lead to prowess. And, despite the persistent misconception, in part evidenced by the NeuroLeadership Institute’s past industry research, growth mindset doesn’t mean you’ll become an expert at whatever you attempt. To make a lasting impact, organizations ought to examine what they can control and work to improve in those areas.
The myth of limitless potential
In 2018, we wrote for HBR that growth mindset — the belief that skills can be improved through persistent effort — doesn’t actually refer to limitless potential. In other words, not everyone can get to Carnegie Hall.
What this looks like in organizational practice is that some managers wrongly assume that their employees’ capabilities and growth potential are unbounded. They try to fill employees’ plates to the rim, all in the spirit of “growth mindset.” However, such lofty and unrealistic expectations for team members may actually detract from people’s ability to do their best work, leading to reduced performance.
We can trace the myth of unbounded growth in part to the ubiquitous “famous failures” stories that flood popular culture. Recall the articles and marketing campaigns that highlight individuals such as Albert Einstein, J.K. Rowling, and Steve Jobs. These are people who reached the top of their fields despite huge setbacks and failures.
But we need to remember that they are outliers, unicorns. Setting the goal to become like them can be detrimental to what we can realistically achieve. Recent research by growth mindset experts Paul O’Keefe, Carol Dweck, and Gregory Walton suggests that sky-high expectations about pursuing interests outside their comfort zone may limit people’s motivation levels. Others have argued that such expectations can cause people to meet setbacks with disappointment because reality doesn’t match what they think will happen.
“Urging (people) to simply find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket,” O’Keefe and his co-authors wrote. The trouble is, people may “drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.”
Set the right expectations
The key is to understand that we need to have the right level of expectations about the outcomes we are trying to achieve. Adopting a growth mindset does not mean “becoming an expert.” It means going on a journey of continuous improvement and development towards expertise. The next time you find yourself feeling a fixed mindset, slow down, notice why something motivates or discourages you, and acknowledge that even passion projects can be challenging. A growth mindset may be a great way to ensure you hone your skills and talents in the best way to continue improving.
So while you may never play the cello better than Yo-Yo Ma, if you practice despite challenges, you will likely start to see your skills progress over time. Within a year, you may not even recognize the novice you once were.
This article is the sixth installment in NLI’s series, Growth Mindset: The Master Class, a 12-week campaign to help leaders see how the world’s largest organizations are putting growth mindset to use.